It is 1936 and life under Stalin is precarious, dangerous, unpredictable, and fraught with insecurity. Signs of the Great Purge that will take place between 1936 and 1938, leaving 10 million dead, 98% of them male, are showing. No one can be trusted, no one is immune from false accusations.
Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division is riding high. He and his subordinates have succeeded in capturing a rapist who has been terrorizing the women of the city. As a reward for his success, he asks for, and gets, a new housing arrangement. He will no longer have to share a room with his cousin. He is moving into an apartment with shared living and kitchen space, but he will have his own room. In a country in which no citizen has any right to privacy, Korolev’s reward marks him as a significant player in Stalin’s Russia. What the leadership of the party do not know is that Korolev is a secret Christian who begins his day with prayer, resorts to it frequently during the day, and who hides his most important possession, a Bible, under the floorboards of his room. Korolev is a study in contrasts: he believes absolutely in Stalin and his programs for the advancement of the country and he believes absolutely in the existence and presence of God.
Korolev is drawn into the investigation of the gruesome murder of a young woman. Clearly tortured, she was killed in a de-consecrated church, one of the few that has not yet been demolished. When the autopsy shows that her dental work was done in the United States, the case becomes very complicated. Why was she in Stalin’s Russia?
The marks on the tortured body of a member of the Cheka, an antecedent of the KGB, clearly indicate that the two victims were killed by the same person. What do the two victims have in common? The arrival of Jack Schwartz, an American dealer in religious art, opens the story and provides a significant motive for the deaths. The icon of Our Lady of Kazan has a powerful hold on Russians despite the party-required turn to atheism. The icon disappeared in 1905, likely stolen for the jewel-encrusted frame. There are rumors that the icon has been hidden in Russia and there is no limit to the amount of money emigres are willing to pay to bring the icon to the United States.
As Korolev investigates, he is assisted by a group of street-wise, starving children who are willing to help for a few kopecks. Their parents are missing and they have little to lose. Their numbers are so large among the homeless and starving of Moscow that they are virtually invisible. It is when Korolev learns that the killer is a member of the Thieves, a Mafia-like criminal organization, that he understands that the murder may have been ordered to satisfy the greed of someone in the police.
Korolev is an admirable character so one can hope that William Ryan intends THE HOLY THIEF to be the first in a series. The author brilliantly creates an atmosphere that conveys the dread, the fear, and the suspicion that each person is an enemy. The dialogue is a bit heavy and suggestive of paranoia but sometimes things aren’t the product of a fevered imagination. No one is safe. The slightest comment can lead to an arrest. People are starving and, if informing on a neighbor can earn a loaf of bread, there is no shortage of people willing to turn on a fellow worker or a neighbor. In 1936, Hitler has been in control of Germany for three years. Mussolini rules Italy. Death is hovering over Europe.
Ryan has created a setting and an atmosphere that is crushing but he has also created characters who are survivors. Some of them are real including Korolev’s neighbor, Isaac Babel. Life goes on and Ryan’s characters are survivors, a group I look forward to meeting again.